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Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI) is an arms fair held every two years in London Docklands, which is attended by both arms company representatives and military delegations from around the world. Each time it takes place, it draws protests from campaigners, politicians and civil society – particularly as many of the regimes invited to buy arms are also accused of human-rights abuses and breaching international humanitarian law.
Between 1976 and 1991, the British Army Equipment Exhibition and the Royal Navy Equipment Exhibition were held on alternate years in Aldershot and Portsmouth respectively. Overseas delegations attended by invitation only. Despite having been at war with Iran for almost six years, a five-strong delegation from Iraq attended in 1986.
In 1993 the two exhibitions were combined and held every other year until the British government decided to privatise the exhibition. Exhibitions company Spearhead launched the first DSEI, then known as Defence and Systems Equipment International, in 1999 at Chertsey in Surrey. In 2001 it moved to its current location at the ExCeL Exhibition Centre in London Docklands. DSEI's name was changed in 2009, replacing the word Systems with Security.
In April 2008, DSEI was acquired by Clarion Events. At the same time Clarion also acquired ITEC - a conference and exhibition dedicated to military simulation, training and education - and Latin American Aerospace and Defence. Clarion's organising of DSEI has made it a target of protests. In July 2017, anti-war campaigners wrote 'war starts here' outside the company's office.
It was suggested by CAAT (Campaign Against Arms Trade) that former owners Reed Exhibitions' decision to sell followed substantial criticism both from healthcare professionals and academics, as well as criticism from campaigners, over the alleged immoral nature of the arms fair.
DSEI works closely with the Department of International Trade's arms-export promotion arm (DIT DSO) to invite foreign military delegations. Some of these delegations are accused of being undemocratic and abusing human-rights. In 2015, 61 countries were invited to DSEI. Of these, 14 were characterised by the Economist Intelligence Unit's Democracy Index of having authoritarian regimes. Four (Colombia, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan) were also on the UK government's list of countries with wide-ranging human rights concerns. Six countries were characterised by the Heidelberg Institute for International Conflict Research as being "at war" at the time.
Criticism of the DSEI arms fair has been led by Campaign Against Arms Trade but other NGOs such as Amnesty International have also criticised the fair - focusing on the presence of human-rights abusing regimes and on the sale of illegal torture equipment. In 2015, Amnesty International criticised the organiser's decision to bar human-rights researcher Oliver Sprague from the arms fair. Amnesty said it suspected "organisers wished to prevent human rights experts from detecting the presence of any illegal activity at the event, which has a chequered history".
Politicians' views on DSEI
Although the government has supported the event since its inception, opposition politicians have criticised it. In 2017, London Mayor Sadiq Khan called for it to be banned. He said: “The Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI) arms fair is not an event that I support. ExCeL is a commercial space for hire. I am opposed to London being used as a market place for the trade of weapons to those countries that contribute to human rights abuses.”. On the other hand, when Boris Johnson was Mayor of London, he said the arms fair should take place.
Public's views on DSEI
Polling of 2,000 UK adults, conducted by Opinium in 2015, showed that 43% believed that the government should not be involved in organising arms fairs like DSEI, with 19% believing that they should. When asked if the government should be involved in organising arms fairs which human rights abusers are invited to, 64% said 'no' and 9% said 'yes'.
Illegal torture equipment
At several DSEI arms fairs, organisers have faced criticism after torture equipment was found for sale at the fair. In 2015, two arms companies exhibiting at the fair (Tianjin Myway and Magforce International) advertised leg irons and electric batons. In 2007, another Chinese company called Famous Glory was found to be advertising banned leg irons in its brochure. In 2011, Amnesty International claimed that illegal torture equipment was again on display.
The event has attracted much attention from activist groups. In 2001, 2003, and 2005 were all targets of sizeable protests. Former London Mayor Ken Livingstone has been critical of the event and even the Metropolitan Police have spoken out about the cost of policing the event. In 2013 the London Mayor Boris Johnson supported the exhibition, which caused controversy with activists.
Protestors targeted DSEI exhibitor Lockheed Martin by blocking the entrances to their Regent Street office. A networking dinner for DSEI attendees was also targeted by protesters who sat outside of the Troxy venue holding a banner which said: "Arms dealers here today - this is not OK!".
During protests against the DSEI arms fair in 2015, eight people were arrested for blocking a road which led to the Excel Centre in order to stop tanks and armoured vehicles getting to the fair. The Crown Prosecution Service charged them with blocking a highway but the judge ruled that, by attempting to disrupt the arms fair, the protesters had been trying to prevent greater crimes such as genocide and torture. Defence witnesses in the case argued that the arms fair facilitated the repressive government of Bahrain, Saudi Arabia’s bombing campaign in Yemen and Turkey’s internal repression of its Kurdish population. District judge Angus Hamilton said: "“[There is] clear, credible and largely unchallenged evidence from the expert witnesses of wrongdoing at DSEI and compelling evidence that it took place in 2015. It was not appropriately investigated by the authorities. This could be inferred from the responses of the police officers, that they did not take the defendants’ allegations seriously.”
Campaigners disrupted the event by blockading entrances to the centre. Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams condemned the 2019 fair, saying "The way much of the arms trade currently works continues to be a blot on the global moral landscape."
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